Good news, coal miners: Joe Biden has a brilliant idea for your future. “Anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well … Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!” the former vice-president said at a New Hampshire rally on Monday.
God only knows where Biden got the idea that coal mining consists of throwing the stuff into a furnace. That’s not how it works, but I digress. Biden’s recommendation is stale stuff. It’s the kind of rhetoric that will only sway voters whose ideal president is a machine that spits out a white paper from 1998 every time someone pushes a button. R-training programs for workers in precarious industries have been with us for a long time. So has a specific fixation on the tech industry, as though it’s a cure-all for rural poverty.
But 1998 was a long time ago. It’s evident now that retraining programs — including the ones that teach miners and factory workers and whoever else to code — are not the panacea that technocrats hoped they’d become. “Despite decades of investments by the federal government in a patchwork of job-retraining efforts, most have been found to be ineffective according to numerous studies over the years, and it remains unclear to experts whether the programs are even up to the task of preparing workers for the new economy,” Jeffrey Selingo recently wrote for The Atlantic. Privately run efforts aren’t always effective, either. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, students sued the founders of Mined Minds, a nonprofit that promised paid apprenticeships to every graduate of its coding program, for fraud. The jobs did not appear; most students didn’t even complete the program.
“They’re coming here promising stuff that they don’t deliver,” the husband of a former student told the Times. “People do that all the time. They’ve always done it to Appalachians.”
Some day, the mines will close, and mining communities will need new jobs and radical policy solutions if they’re going to survive. But Biden and his fellow technocrats fail to grasp a foundational fact about coal country: The political and economic problems there are not recent. They are deep ones, over a century in the making. Industry came for the coal and the timber and for the people themselves, who turned profits for their bosses and kept the country’s lights on for generations. There is no simple remedy.